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University of Washington faces budget uncertainties amid coronavirus pandemic

University of Washington freshman Byron Chen walks on the campus among the nearly 30 cherry trees nearing their peak bloom Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
University of Washington freshman Byron Chen walks on the campus among the nearly 30 cherry trees nearing their peak bloom Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Seattle.

Universities and colleges are facing the possibility of large budget cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The list of uncertainties is long: How many students will attend in the fall? Will it even be possible to have face-to-face instruction? And will publicly funded institutions see a big drop in state funding because of declining tax revenue?

These are all questions administrators are confronting, including at the University of Washington. Provost Mark Richards told the Board of Regents that with the sudden changes brought on by the pandemic, the university is being more careful about expenses, especially when it comes to filling positions.

“Although we’re not declaring a formal hiring freeze, we’re basically putting in place hiring restrictions, especially for full-time faculty,” Richards said.

UW was the first major university to shift to online instruction as a way to reduce the spread of the virus. That’s led to an emptying out of the campus as students returned to their homes. Only about 20 percent of the university’s housing is now occupied. And administrators are moving remaining students to single rooms with their own bathrooms as a way to adhere to public health guidelines. All dining services have switched to a grab-and-go model.

University leaders also are trying to gauge how many international students will attend this fall. More than 8,000 students on the UW Seattle campus come from other countries, and most of them pay tuition that's three times higher than what students with Washington residency pay.

Vice Provost Phil Reid said so far, the number of international students who have said they plan to attend in the fall is “down just a little bit, but nothing dramatic.” But he said one concern is that students face trouble getting visas approved.

“New visa applications for students just aren’t being processed right now,” Reid said.

Another major question mark – will there be a fall football season? The Huskies rank 19th on the Forbes list of most valuable college football teams, with estimated revenue of $84 million, which the magazine said is a three-year average from 2014-16.

President Ana Mari Cauce said if the football season is canceled, that would be a big blow.

“It would be devastating across every university,” Cauce told the Board of Regents. “Every Division I would be in the same boat and would have to figure it out.”

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In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.